Prologue ~ The Melody
The music chamber vibrated, ready to receive the melody. Donovan fixed the brass wind up tool and adjusted one more of the metal teeth resting against the drum—the tiny canister that would hold his masterpiece. The lamp on his worktable cast shadows that blended with the age spots bridging the thin tunnels of blue veins crisscrossing his weathered skin.
This project had been different from the others. The shelves in the room were lined with beautiful creations of every shape and size. Gold-leafing, sculpted marble, carved cherry wood, and polished silver caught his eye as he looked from one end of the room to the other. The vessel that would carry this music was not extravagant, ornate, or expensive. But he never argued with the music. Every tune knew where it belonged, who it needed to touch.
He breathed in deep and began humming. At first the sound bumped up against the brass, but he opened his palms and focused, humming louder. The humming deepened, changed to singing. Singing without words, singing with magic.
He trembled. His voice shook, and with one last long note, he stopped. His shoulders turned inward, and he slumped back into the chair behind him, heart thumping against his chest in a staccato beat. He turned the crank. The music began where he had left off, the tinny sound turning in the air before him as it rose up the scale with a power of its own.
Donovan listened until the melody stopped, two heartbeats before it would begin again. His fingers tightened around the chamber, and he slowly rose from his chair. The window across the room rattled as the wind shook the frame eager to take the music and give it to the one waiting for his magic.
Donovan wound the crank one last time when his work was finished. This was the hardest part. The temptation was always so great to listen again—to be lost in the power of the tune he had helped to create. But he wouldn’t succumb for he knew the wind was waiting for its chance to breathe its own bit of magic into the melody.
He rested his hands on the music box. He felt weak, the very marrow of his bones drained of energy. It may have been his last song, but he smiled anyway. His soul belonged to the music. Clenching the sides of the chair, he listened. Donovan felt the power crackling in the air around him. Not a single note of this song was ordinary. It would transform, heal, and change every listener.
Chapter 1 ~The Music Box
Evelyn stood in the one-bedroom apartment looking at a music box on the kitchen table. Slightly larger than a shoebox, constructed of pressed paperboard and covered with ivory parchment, a narrow line of embossed gold decorated the outer edge. It wasn’t extravagant or expensive, but Evelyn held it close—it was her most precious gift in the world.
“Oh Jim, it’s beautiful! Is this to celebrate—”
“Our five month anniversary.” Jim finished her sentence.
“You remembered.” Evelyn touched his cheek.
“Always.” He kissed her, and then bent over the jewelry box. “Look at these compartments.” He lifted the lids of the two side compartments, each lined in cheap red-velvet paper.
“I like the color,” she said. She brushed aside the foreboding gloom that haunted her as they counted down the time they had together. Five days left.
“I hoped you would. Push this lever over.” Jim pointed to the center of the jewelry box and let his fingers glide over her hand.
When Evelyn pushed the metal button on the raised middle compartment, the center of the jewelry box clicked open to reveal a narrow chamber with padded ridges to hold rings and other precious treasures—things which nineteen-year-old Evelyn did not own. A tiny ballerina on a dais near the back popped up and began dancing an elegant pirouette in front of a mirror attached to the inside of the lid.
“Oh, it plays music. Jim, where did you find this?” Evelyn located the brass wind-up key at the side of the box as it busily churned out a melody she’d never heard before. The music climbed tentatively up the scale and then scattered down with a resonance as deep as Jim’s voice. The wind seemed to listen too. It took the tune and carried it on a lilting breeze out the window above the kitchen sink.
“Now, that’s my secret,” he replied.
“You and your secrets.” She put her arms around her husband and kissed him, pulling back to look into his clear blue eyes and seeing the love he felt for her. “I love it. Thank you.” They swayed to the music and listened, and she wished that time could stop in that moment.
“Now you’ll have a place to keep that locket and know my heart is with you.” Jim held her close and hummed along with the tune. He’d given her the heart-shaped locket on their wedding day with his tiny portrait inside. They’d started their life together in the shabby apartment in Colorado Springs with hopes of a bright future, but the war had changed their plans.
Evelyn held back the tears as she felt the rumbling of his bass voice against her cheek. She leaned back to look at him. “You keep your heart right in your chest a’beating strong and come back to me.”
Jim chuckled. “But don’t you know? I gave my heart to you for safe-keeping the day we met.”
She laughed, determined to hold on to the echoes of their happiness blending with the melody. She thought of her good husband, the man who made her a cup of peppermint tea every evening, kissed her first thing in the morning, and sang with her in the church choir. Jim wanted to be a father, and he would be a great one, but he was leaving, and Evelyn felt like they were running out of time even though their life together had just begun.
Maybe the war would end soon. She rested her head on his chest. Her hair fell in soft auburn waves over his hands. “My mama told me not to believe everything you read in romance novels ’cause there ain’t a man off the paper that comes close.’ But she didn’t count on a flesh and blood, real-live hero like you, Jim Patterson.”
Her words blended with the music drifting on the sweet sounds of spring. The words were what Evelyn’s romance novels called true love, like two pieces of a puzzle coming together to form a perfect picture. Evelyn loved how Jim could nearly finish her thoughts and almost read her mind by the expression on her face. She knew he loved her—mind, body, soul—the same way she loved him.
Nearly two months later, Evelyn woke up with her stomach full of the turbulence Jim had often described from his flight training. She counted back the days on the calendar and trembled with the news she would write to Jim—that he would be a father. Good news she would send that there would now be two people in the Patterson household loving and praying for him while he was away. Her heart rose into her throat.
She was alone and scared of the future, but she wouldn’t write those words. She’d always pictured a complete family when she’d thought about her future as a wife and mother. Evelyn put a hand to her stomach and squeezed her eyes shut. She would bring this baby into the world by herself, but one day they would be a complete family.
Evelyn opened her eyes and pushed herself to do something absolutely normal, like scrubbing the kitchen sink. Trying to get used to Jim’s absence was like wearing shoes a size too small. It pinched at the edges of her life and made everything feel tight and cramped. Staying busy didn’t help—walking in too-tight shoes only caused blisters.
She had a cool cloth on her face when she heard a knock at the door. Rising on shaky legs, she breathed in and the edges of her mouth turned up in a hopeful smile. Maybe it was Lucy from the post office. She was always the first to hear the news. Evelyn put a hand to her stomach thinking of her own developing news. She opened the door. The world tilted when she saw the messenger—not Lucy—holding a yellow card. Not bright yellow like welcome-home ribbons. Dark yellow, like death.
The laces of those too-tight shoes wound, wound, wound around her body. They hardened the hollow spaces of her heart into one deep cavern. They pulled her nightmares of losing Jim into focus. They choked the breath caught in her throat. The melody of her life went silent and Evelyn’s world went dark.
Evelyn sat on the loveseat in the fading light of her parent’s front room. She’d moved from her apartment near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to live with her mom and dad in the secluded town of Aspen Falls, Colorado. The reports said Jim’s body hadn’t been recovered, but nearly everyone in his company had been killed. Evelyn shuddered, remembering details she wanted to forget. Her fist tightened around the slip of paper that held her happiness hostage. Jim’s commander had sent a letter written in her husband’s familiar script. It said, “I love you, Evelyn. If I don’t come back, look in the music box. I left you one of my secrets.”
She had looked inside and listened to the tune each time, watching the graceful ballerina with its tiny bit of tulle swirling. She hadn’t found anything—maybe he wanted her to remember he had given her his heart for safe-keeping, and she still held it in the locket she wore.
She did remember it—all of it—and when his voice began to fade from her mind, she wound up the music box and listened. The memory came back with the tune they’d danced to, and she could almost hear his hum, feel it vibrating in his chest against her cheek. But she still hadn’t discovered the secret.
Thirty-nine weeks after Jim left full of life and courage on his way to fight the Germans, Evelyn gave birth to their son. She cried when she held him and recognized Jim’s strong chin and confident brow—or maybe she just wanted to see those things—features that would keep Jim alive in their new son. She named him Daniel, but everyone called him Danny.
Her arms were no longer empty, and Danny began filling up the cracked spaces in her broken heart. She held on and listened to the memory of Jim coming from the music box. When the melody swelled higher and the petite ballerina danced, Evelyn let her heart believe that Jim would come back to her—maybe that was his secret. She nursed the hope of her lost love and cuddled her baby boy in the hollow space in her neck. Danny rested there as she hummed the tune, and her teardrops fell on the dark crown of his head.
Living with her parents in the same house she grew up in provided some distraction from her heartache. Endless days of nursing and rocking her infant replaced the time she had spent staring at the dust particles in the air, thinking of all she had lost when Jim died.
During one of Danny’s naps Evelyn took a cloth and dusted all of the compartments of the music box. Every time she heard the melody, it took her back to that day when Jim held her in his strong arms. She didn’t have much jewelry, but she felt a connection to Jim whenever she opened the padded chambers. The box held keepsakes—a lock of Danny’s baby hair, the tarnished key that went with her first roller skates, the bottle caps from her first date with Jim. In the bottom drawer, she kept the few letters Jim had written. She rubbed the cloth along the inside of the right compartment and it caught on a piece of the red velvet paper, pulling it back.
Her hand shook and she dropped the dust cloth. Silently berating herself for her carelessness, she pressed the corner back down, hoping it would stay in place. It curled up stubbornly, and she noticed something beneath the lining. A piece of her favorite stationery—light blue with a tiny silver bird embossed on the edges. Curious, she peeled back the corner to reveal her name printed in bold caps—Jim’s handwriting. She pulled it free and sank to the floor.
I wanted to come back to you. I hope you know if you’re reading this that I’m so angry at myself for failing you by not coming home. Believe me, I did everything I could to make it back to you. Still, I believe life has a purpose and people live or die for a reason. I don’t know those reasons. I only know that I love you. I hope you never have to read this, but if you do, please, will you do something for me?
Be happy. Give my things away or sell them. Give your heart a second chance. There’s a secret to this music box, but you’ll only find it by passing it on.
You’ll always remember me, but you don’t need anything but your own heart to do it by. I’m sorry we never had much money or time, but I hope you’ll have more of both those things in the future. I’m so sorry Evelyn, please don’t let me be the reason people don’t see your beautiful smile or hear your sweet laughter. Please don’t die with me.
Evelyn pondered his words for several weeks. She didn’t want to give the music box away. The silver birds were all but worn down from reading his letter over and over. Evelyn couldn’t do it, and the tears came in torrents when she listened to the music play. She didn’t understand why Jim would ask her to give away the last gift he’d given her.
In February, when Danny was three months old, Evelyn took him to the new memorial Aspen Falls had dedicated to fallen soldiers. The chilly air carried the scent of winter on its back. Wrapped tightly in layers of clothing and blankets, her son whimpered when Evelyn bent closer to the stone representing Jim’s empty grave in Colorado Springs. She pressed her cheek to the shock of dark hair covering Danny’s warm head.
“Daddy’s not coming home,” she cried and rocked her baby while humming the tune that reminded her of his father. An icy blast lifted Danny’s blanket and Evelyn heard something and stopped rocking.
“Hello?” Evelyn listened for an answer. The wind sang through the trees and although she knew no one would believe it if she told, it whispered something to her. Don’t die with me. And she heard the tune, Jim’s music—his voice—a song on the wind.
Evelyn clutched Danny and hurried back to their home. She climbed the steps to the front door and walked inside. She stood with her crying infant in the entryway. Her feet throbbed, but not from the cold. The winter in her heart refused to let the blood pump to her extremities. It stopped her frozen soul from feeling. It halted her steps across the thin ice leading up to each new day. If her heart wasn’t so heavy, she could take a step forward, cross the ice and find safety. She closed her eyes and felt a warm breath of air brushing the tendrils of hair from her face, repeating those words—Jim’s haunting words. A tingling in her feet drew her attention. Evelyn looked down at the puddle of water dripping from her boots, steam rising from the melted ice. It was time. Time to live—really live—for Jim, and for Danny.
Chapter 2 ~Trading Sorrows
“Mother, I put Danny down for his nap, and I’m heading over to the church swap meet.” Evelyn paused at the front door.
Marie looked up from her sewing. “It’s time then?”
“Yes, it’s what Jim wanted.”
Marie nodded, and Evelyn let herself out and walked two blocks to the white-washed building in silence. A gentle spring breeze, similar to the one from a year ago caressed the back of her neck. Her hair stayed tight in the clip and refused to play with the wind.
The town of Aspen Falls was much as it had been for the past twenty years—moving at its own pace. If one looked hard and knew what to look for, change was evident, but a passerby wouldn’t recognize the handful of new shops and the remodeled park the town boasted in its claim to progressive growth.
Evelyn carried the music box under her arm. Her heart seemed to beat with the rhythm of the music held inside. Maybe it always would keep time to Jim’s melody. She had copied his message and pasted it inside the box under the red velvet paper to remind her of what she’d heard in the cemetery. Jim had hinted at a secret, and if it wasn’t for that, Evelyn would never have ventured out with the music box.
Tugging at the heavy door, she cradled the music box and stepped inside the church. Her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the entryway. She crossed the hall and entered the Sunday School room. With some hesitation, she eyed the gleaming wooden benches surrounding tables overflowing with donations.
Evelyn meandered through the church, looking at the tables filled with trinkets and treasures from the community and the larger neighboring town of Callaway Grove. She rubbed the ivory paper on the box in a circular motion, and her voice resonated with a hum—something she did almost without realizing.
The double doors at the back of the church swung open. A gust of wind pushed through and collided with Evelyn. She stood there, staring as a woman struggled to carry a large cradle inside. The current tickled her ears with the sounds of the earth coming alive, and Evelyn walked toward the woman.
The cradle was marvelous—solid maple with little birds carved in the sides—and polished to a pale sheen. The woman closed the doors, and the last bits of wind pushed the cradle until it rocked gently. Evelyn smiled at the woman.
Her cheeks were flushed from the exertion of carrying the load inside. A tangled mess of dark curls fell halfway down her back. She glanced at the cradle, then at Evelyn. “Do you need something like this?”
Evelyn saw something familiar in the woman’s eyes. “I—uh, I do, but this is so beautiful—I don’t know if I have enough.”
“My name is Rhonda Halverson.” She motioned to Evelyn’s hands. “What did you bring to trade?”
“I’m Evelyn Patterson.” Her throat tightened and she held out the box with trembling hands. “This is a music box.” She set it on the table and popped open the compartment. The miniature ballerina stood up gracefully and pirouetted to the music.
The two women stood still and listened. Rhonda bent down and peered at the reflection of the ballerina in the mirror. “Beautiful. I’ve never seen one like this before. Where did you get it?”
Evelyn hesitated. “It was a gift. I’m not sure where it came from.”
Rhonda’s fingers grazed the tulle skirt of the ballerina. “My daughter would’ve loved this. That was her cradle, or bed as she called it. It’s big enough she slept in it until she was nearly eighteen months old.”
Evelyn swallowed. “Your daughter?”
“Yes, she passed on two years ago. She was three.” Rhonda squared her shoulders and gazed at Evelyn.
“I’m so sorry.” Evelyn covered her mouth, then removed her hand and murmured, “My late husband gave me this music box and asked me to sell it to help me move on with my life if he died.” She touched the velvet padding and looked at Rhonda, understanding what she had recognized in her eyes. “He died in the war before I could get a letter out that I was expecting.”
“Seems like we have a connection then,” Rhonda said. “I’d like to trade you my cradle if you feel up to it.”
Evelyn knelt down beside the cradle and traced the lines carved into the wood. “I think my baby will fit better in here than the music box.” She laughed and the tinkling sound echoed through the hall.
“And I think I’m ready to pour my sorrows into something smaller.” Rhonda cleared her throat. The music stopped playing and the ballerina stood still in a half turn away from the mirror, her face painted in an everlasting smile that looked up at the two women who knew about heartache.
A few hours later in the quiet of her room, Evelyn battled second thoughts. She closed her eyes for a moment and hummed Jim’s tune. Her heart beat in time with a loss she guessed might never leave. She knew Jim wanted her to trade the music box so her heart would not be haunted by the song of his love, but it didn’t matter what material possessions she gave away, it wouldn’t rid her heart of the pain of Jim’s loss. She didn’t want to—wasn’t ready—to stop a love that had barely begun.
She rocked her baby in the cradle until she felt a draft coming from the window. Stepping close to the sun-streaked pane, she saw it was open a half-inch. Evelyn closed it tight, and the wind tapped against the glass once and then twice before turning back to blow in another direction. The wind seemed to know something that she didn’t. If only it could whisper what the next step was for her and Danny. Evelyn hummed and Danny smiled in his sleep as if the baby knew something of the future.
The wind blew down the street to a two-bedroom house with a picket fence and a rusty tricycle in the yard. Leland Halverson nursed a bottle of beer in the back bedroom and looked at the empty spot on the wood floor where the cradle had been. He groaned, remembering those happy times when he could breathe without hurting. Leland had built the cradle for their baby girl, Jessie.
He felt the current of air enter before he heard Rhonda’s light step in the kitchen.
“Leland, I’m home. I traded the cradle for something special.”
He winced and took a long pull from his beer and tossed it in the corner. The glass shattered, and the amber liquid trickled over the pile of bottles he had consumed. No matter how much he drank, he’d still hear Jessie’s scream. He’d hear the haunting cry of his baby girl and remember that horrible day.
He could hear Rhonda move around the kitchen and then a clicking noise, like a wind-up toy. A melody—ethereal yet alluring—traveled toward him and filled the room. Rhonda must have left the door ajar, for Leland could still feel a light breeze moving down the hall. And for just a moment he thought he heard something besides music.
The cool air sent a shiver through him. He cursed and slumped against the bedroom wall. The music continued to play and he rubbed his hand along the coarse stubble framing his jaw. He couldn’t remember the last time Rhonda had made him shower and shave. The whiskers on his cheek were matted. It must have been over a week.
“Would you like to come in the kitchen?” Her voice was almost a whisper, but he still flinched. Rhonda stood in the doorway and Leland took a shallow breath.
“Why?” He glanced at her, and then back at the floor. He waited for his wife to tell him because he stunk of liquor and needed something running through his veins besides alcohol, but she only sighed. Then he heard the wind blow the screen door shut and the music stopped playing.
“I picked up something today I think Jessie would’ve liked.”
Leland cringed and rested his head on his knees. Rhonda crouched beside him and touched his arm. “It will only take a minute. Come on.” She tugged on his sleeve.
He curled his toes, snug in his woolen socks and bit his bottom lip. Slender fingers grasped his hand and pulled. He looked up into the clear blue of Rhonda’s eyes and tried not to see Jessie there. She paused and he knew she was doing the same thing—trying not to see Jessie in the dimple under his left eye or the red highlights in his hair. She pulled again and he allowed himself to rise with the momentum and follow her out of the bedroom.
“I’m tired,” he complained as he shuffled down the hall.
Rhonda turned around and looked at him. “Me, too.” She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and nudged him into the kitchen. “Here it is.”
She pointed at a music box, open on the table with a ballerina frozen mid-twirl. Leland swallowed, but his throat didn’t seem to be working right, his saliva caught and he choked. His chest burned, his eyes blurred, and still he was choking.
“I need a beer.” He gasped for breath and moved toward the icebox.
“Wait.” Rhonda put a hand on his arm and pushed him into a chair situated directly in front of the music box. She leaned over the ballerina and turned the brass key until the melody began again and the ballerina finished her pirouette and started another.
He watched her spinning to the tune emanating from the music box and shook his head. “Why?”
“Because it’s time for us to heal.” Rhonda sank into the chair next to him. “I traded the cradle to a woman who lost her husband in the war. She has a baby boy who’ll never know his father. She smiled at me anyway, Leland, and said she needed to give this music box away so she could keep on living.” Rhonda motioned to the music box. “We still have a chance to live. I don’t want to give up on that.”
The table in front of him was polished with a satin finish and the grain of the wood was hardly noticeable, lost in the deep mahogany. Leland rubbed his finger along the edge of wood he had sanded and shaped so carefully, the same way he’d shaped Jessie’s cradle. The music played on and the melody climbed higher to sweeter notes that reminded him of Rhonda’s lullabies. He gasped for air, fighting the tightness in his chest. The chair scraped along the floor as he pushed it from the table and stumbled toward the icebox.
“It was an accident. Drinking won’t change that. Jessie’s gone.”
His hand closed around the beer bottle and squeezed until he might’ve crushed the shards of glass into his hands—the same hands that would never hold his little girl again. He choked, this time on a great ball of tears rising up his throat. Woolen socks made it easy to shuffle down the hall, and he leaned against the door frame for a moment, his chest heaving with sobs.
Prying the top from his beer, he drank and swallowed his tears, sinking into a heap on the floor. Grimy fingers rubbed the jagged edge of the bottle cap and flipped it into the air. It bounced along the hardwood floor—ping—ping—ping, in perfect time with the music box as the notes reached for the sweet strains of a lullaby again. Leland held his breath, listening to the tinny music and stared at the mound of brown glass in the corner. The bottles rested against each other like a graveyard of lost hopes and dreams.
The screen door slammed and a whoosh of air rushed down the hallway. It lifted dark strands from Leland’s head like little fingers once did when his baby girl rode on his shoulders through the woods. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head against the wall and listened to the music dance with the wind. The smell of lavender overtook the scent of liquor, and the sound of small feet pattered against the floor.
Chapter 3 ~ Singing
Rhonda reached around the back of the music box to turn the crank.
“I don’t wanna hear no more music today,” Leland muttered.
She continued winding as if she hadn’t heard him. When the music began playing, she looked at him, her blue eyes piercing his drunken stupor. “I spoke with the Giffords today. They were asking about their chairs. I didn’t know how to tell them you’re still staring at the same pile of wood you were four months ago.”
He shrugged and peeled the label on the beer bottle.
“You’re not the only one who’s hurting!” She grabbed his beer bottle and threw it against the wall. The glass sprinkled over the floor, its tones discordant with the melody playing.
“Did you know the day she died, Jessie got into your shoe polish and smeared it all over my good rug? Black shoe polish, Leland, and I was so mad. I spanked her and yelled at her and asked her why she was always making a mess of everything. I told her she was three years old now—old enough to know better.”
He straightened up and his eyes were clear with understanding. “Don’t.”
She stood and paced in front of him. “You should’ve seen her face. She looked at me with tears running down her cheeks and said, ‘I just wanted to paint a picture.’”
Rhonda pulled at a stray curl near her temple. Her lip trembled. “But I was so angry, I sent her to her room, and I grumbled the whole time I tried to clean that shoe polish out of the rug. I didn’t hear her go outside—I didn’t know she was out there until I heard her singing. I went outside to look for her and tell her she needed to go back to her room, but she was hiding from me. I knew you were bringing that load of wood around and I tried to find her.” Wet drops splattered the table and Rhonda covered her face with her hands.
She didn’t have to say any more. Leland saw it all in his mind’s eye. He had been singing too on that day, whistling and humming and all around making joyful noises. So happy about the number of orders coming into his shop and the bargain he’d got at the lumberyard. He’d pulled around the corner by his shop and backed his truck in like he always did. He saw a flash of color, heard a scream, and then Rhonda was there screaming about Jessie. He’d run over his sweet baby girl, and she was gone before help could arrive.
Within minutes, it seemed everywhere people were crying and the wind howled too. The great limbs of the oak tree swayed and creaked in the sky. Leland had heard the trees groaning against the current of air, always relentless in its path to keep them moving.
At the cemetery, the women tied black scarves around their hair to keep it from blowing wild. He hadn’t heard anything that day except the moaning of the trees. If there had been an axe, he might’ve cut every one of those trees down just so he could quiet the wind. It sounded so much like the pain in his heart echoing through his mind.
Leland shuddered. How could he tell Rhonda he was afraid to enter his shop again? He’d tried to go back after Jessie died. He’d even picked up his planer and began smoothing out the wood in broad strokes. But the wind had lifted bits of sawdust and as they swirled through the air and irritated his eyes, he’d heard singing—Jessie’s singing.
Dropping his tools, he ran, sobbing until his throat felt parched. He knew he could drink for the rest of his life and never quench his painful thirst. Maybe that’s what he wanted. To shut out the singing, the dancing, the feel of Jessie’s little hand in his, the warmth of her smile.
Rhonda sat at the table with her head in her hands now, crying harder than he’d ever seen her cry. He reached out his hand, but then brought it back and rubbed the stiff whiskers on his chin.
“We don’t have anything left, Leland,” Rhonda said between sobs. “I’ve used up the last of the money my father left us. I’m going to look for a job.”
With furrowed brows, he raised his head and opened his mouth to speak.
“If you refuse to work, what choice do I have? There won’t be any money for liquor though.” She lifted her head and caught him with a fierce gaze. “Think about what you’re doing to us.” She pushed the chair back and stood. “I’ll be back later.”
The cemetery is where he would find her, if he dared to follow. He hadn’t returned to the cemetery to see the tiny grave. Rhonda went every day for the first six months and now after almost two years, not so often. The music stopped playing. Leland reached over to close the lid on the ballerina staring at herself in front of the mirror.
He hesitated when the reflection of bloodshot eyes and sallow skin caught his attention. A lock of hair curled above his eyebrow. His mouth was covered in unruly whiskers from his unkempt mustache. What could a man do in his circumstance? A man who had killed his own daughter?
He slammed the lid of the music box down with the questions screaming through his head, throbbing with the thought, Why couldn’t it have been me?
Rhonda waited two more months, hoping Leland would find the strength to live again. The music box played its melody and Rhonda attempted to talk to him, but he stayed locked inside his drunken mind, tormented by his mistake.
She sat at the magnificent dining table and wrote a letter. On a separate piece of paper she wrote a note, folded it and put it inside the compartment of the music box where the ballerina slept. She took two suitcases and five boxes out to the edge of her yard, loaded them into her cousin’s truck, and left.
Leland didn’t even notice she was gone until the next day when he awoke from his usual alcohol-induced slumber, accompanied by a headache hammering against his skull. The house was quiet as he shuffled into the kitchen toward the sink and splashed cold water on his face. Water droplets hung on the ends of his hair and pooled on his shoulders, the dripping sound magnified in the stillness alerted him that something was amiss.
The music box sat on the table and a rustling sound behind it gave Leland a chill. He noticed a sheet of stationery tucked under the box. The window above the sink was open a slit. A draft crinkled the paper, lifting it and letting it fall.
“Rhonda?” The question hung in the stillness. He stepped toward the piece of paper on the table. It was some of Rhonda’s stationery—a soft green with an ‘R’ embossed in the corner. “Rhonda, where are you?” he called even though his heart stuttered with the knowledge that she was gone.